All the people! Where have they gone?
This country I live in went off the rails, and the rest of the world followed behind.
There was so much madness. So much angst. My God, the angst! The crowds. The relentless crowds, divided, set against each other like rabid dogs. It all happened so fast. Within a few years. It musta festered long before that, but the end -- not really the end, but it feels like that sometimes -- occurred at lightning speed.
That leader of my country. What was his name? I've forgotten. I haven't heard his name mentioned in years. He vowed to bring us together. He only widened the schism. It was a canyon -- that famous canyon out west whose name I've also forgotten -- of despair and disillusionment. What was everyone so angry about? But he only made them angrier. He was a madman, really. He fed on the anger and then regurgitated it ten-fold. People devoured the anger until it oozed from their pores. Anger was the new virus. A virus that a shot couldn't prevent or cure. No one knew until then that anger could kill you as quickly as a heart attack. I was eighteen when it all began, a baby really. I knew nothing. That was thirty years ago. The new lifespan for those born since then.
The pavement is broken. Splintered. Streams of dirty water flow through the concrete tributaries. Grass and weeds, tall and dull brown, have reclaimed much of what was once something called a parking lot. There are a few cars still parked there. They've rusted, their wheels flattened or missing. Their windows smashed. The hull of a burnt-out school bus rests near the entrance. They were once yellow, those buses. This one is just black with flecks of gray. There are no buses anymore. Kids don't go to school like they did when I was that age. This fence that I hold onto, my fingers grasping a diamond-shaped link, still stands in most parts, surprisingly. It surrounds the parking lot, the links corroded, gaping holes everywhere. It will fall apart eventually. Everything does. A fence can't stop decay.
I haven't seen what I'm looking at, what is inside the fence, surrounded by the remains of the parking lot, in a long time. They were on the decline even when I was a teenager, a tween, no more than thirteen or fourteen, but sometimes I went to one near where we lived. The mall, it was called. We went to the mall to be with our friends, to play games in the arcade, go to the movies, or hang out in the food court. I miss what was known as a pizza slice.
A mottled brown, short-haired mongrel crosses the lot. Its ribs show through its skin. It keeps its head down, sniffing the ground. I, and those like me, called “scavs” spend a lot of time doing what the mongrel is doing. Scavenge for food or for things we can barter in the city squares. Ten years ago you'd still frequently see scavs this far out from the city, but everything has been picked over a dozen times since then and very little or nothing at all is left in places like suburban malls. When I leave my spot where I had been gripping onto the fence, unsurprisingly, I find the gates torn from their hinges and lying on the pavement. There is no path or tracks leading to the mall doors. No one has been here for quite some time.
The chains that once kept the mall doors secured lay in a corner curled up like a pile of coiled snakes. In the early days of scavenging no scav worth his or her salt went anywhere without heavy-duty bolt cutters in their pack. I still carry mine, but rarely have a need for them. The thick glass in the doors doesn't have a scratch or crack. It takes several pulls to open them, as if the building is vacuum-packed, like opening a Tupperware bowl. Tupperware lives on, people don't. Whoosh! The pent-up odors from inside rushes out, carrying the stench of bottled-up age. Inside I see . . .grayness. Even the sunlight shining through the glass skylight above the center of the mall is gray. In the rays of light countless dust mites float in the still air. A small flock of pigeons fly across the width of the mall, from third tier to third tier. Their flapping wings sound like chattering teeth. How they survive in this environment is anyone's guess. My footsteps as I enter echo throughout the mall, bouncing from wall to wall like a falling mountain climber's final gasps.
The mall doors close on their own behind me, sealing me in this mausoleum in which is buried the failed hopes and dreams of the past. It's no more than a few moments, during which my eyes adjust to the dimness, that I see a light come on at the far end of the mall. A light! An electric light! There hasn't been anything electric in over twenty-five years. I remember watching the last light bulb fade and then go out while I sat in my house and wondered how I would survive. Carly had left a few days before to see if she could barter some canned food for a few tampons from a street trader and not returned. Anything could happen to a beautiful young woman on the streets at night. Anything that could be skewered and cooked over an open flame was fair game. I was too paralyzed with fear to go look for her. But there was the shining light of a bulb. I quickly unstrapped my backpack and let it drop to the floor, and then ran the entire way to the light.
It was a porch light. A light on a fake porch to a fake house. A realtor's display. There was a sign standing beside the steps leading up to the porch. On it in red letters: The House of Tomorrow, Today. Beside the sign sat a potted plant in a large green planter, a healthy ivy of some kind. Its vines wound around a wooden pole. The dirt in the pot was moist, as if it had been recently watered. The door to the house is gleaming white, white like teeth enamel used to be before scavs could no longer find toothpaste. So white, it glowed. As if coming from far away and next to my ears at the same time, a familiar voice said, “Come inside Tom, I've been waiting on you.”
“Yes, Tom, it's me.”
Instantly the door disappears, vanishes, silently. I walk up the steps, resisting the urge to run up them. The gaping rectangular hole where the door had been frightens me. A scav never walked through an open doorway without holding some kind of weapon. Unseen things beyond a doorway had led to the deaths of many-a-scav. I have no weapon with me. My knife is in the pocket on the side of my pack. I knew this was a trick of some kind. My mind playing a trick on me, perhaps. Carly getting back at me for allowing her to go out and becoming the victim of some hideous death. Perhaps. But why here? Why now after all these years? Why inside The House of Tomorrow, Today, today? It took three steps across the porch and then two more steps and I'm inside.
The House of Tomorrow, Today, was an exact replica of the house that Carly and I had shared. And there she was! Carly! Lying on the same sofa we had found in an alley and carried four blocks to the house. It was the same dull purple -- a faded purple -- the purple of a bruise just before it disappears, that it was when I last left it, and the house, behind to begin my life as a scav. I thought I could save people if I found medications, food, memorabilia, anything to give them hope. But parents died, grandparents died, and children died, anyway. I had somehow escaped the anger that kills, as most scavs had. We were wired differently.
And now, there was Carly on the sofa, her ponytail held together by the same bright red scrunchie she always wore, smiling at me. She hadn't aged. Not even one additional wrinkle or a single strand of gray hair.
I look about. “How did all of our old stuff get here?”
“It's not our old stuff. It's the stuff we've always had, except the throw rug. I bought that . . .”
“Stop,” I say. “My head is pounding.”
“Come kiss me,” she says.
It takes me a minute to recall what a kiss was, how it was done. I quickly test-pucker my lips. “I don't want to kiss you,” I say. I wave my arm back and forth like a hand on a Geiger Counter. “This is all too weird. Maybe this is one of those hallucinations. I hit my head or something. A concussion. Some kind of accident that I don't remember . . .”
“Did you have a bad day at work?” she asks.
“Work? What are you talking about?”
“Your suit is a bit rumpled and you look a little tired.”
I look down. Gone are my boots, dirty jeans and sweat-stained t-shirt. I'm in my suit. One of the suits I wore to work. I suddenly catch a whiff of aftershave. A faint aroma. Aftershave I wore as a bank teller. The last that I had in the bottle that I had splashed on the last day I saw Carly. Before seeing her now, I mean. “What's going on!” I exclaimed, frantically, panicked, grabbing my hair, expecting my hands to come away dirty and greasy. It was the hair of a young man, full and silky-clean. I ran to the mirror above the fireplace and stared at my face. My face of thirty years ago.
I turned to look at Carly. “Something's happened, something I can't explain.”
For the first time a worried expression crosses her face. “What is it, honey? What's happened?”
I point to the door. The restored door. Gleaming white on this side too. “Out there. On the other side of that door the world has fallen apart. I was a scav.”
“But sweetie, the world hasn't fallen apart,” she says, her voice dripping with concern. “What's a scav?”
She wouldn't know. Of course she wouldn't know. She was dead by then.
“What's that thing called when there are two worlds?”
“You mean planets? A solar system?”
“No, two worlds that exist in the same place. The same worlds but different.”
“I don't understand.”
I pound my fist on my forehead, willing the memory from sci-fi movies. “Alternate universe,” I shout. “That door,” I point at it again. “Our door has become some kind of passage between two alternate universes. That has to be the answer. But there time has passed, but here little time has passed. Who was the old guy with the frizzy white hair who said time was relative, or something like that?”
Her concern vanishes. “An old guy with frizzy white hair? You're kidding me, right? This is some kind of act you're putting on. Some kind of joke.” She crosses her arms. “Well, it's not funny.”
“No, it's not a joke. Outside the door, in front of the house there's a sign that says this is the house of tomorrow, today. That has to mean something.”
She bursts out laughing. “Okay, sure, someone put a sign in our front yard that says our house is today's house . . .”
“No, the house of tomorrow, today.”
“Go get the sign and bring it in and show it to me.”
I need her to believe me. I need that more than anything. I rush to the door, throw it open and rush out. Instantly I'm swallowed up in the gray light that fills the mall. I look up, the bulb is dead. I whirl about. The door is there, but broken off from its hinges. The paint has peeled from the door. I push the door aside and step into the house. The fake house. It's completely empty except for a broken down sofa. I go back out again. Lying in the dust and dirt in front of the porch is the sign, The House of Tomorrow, Today, sign. Its letters are faded, but legible. Beside it is a shattered planter. I take the long walk to the entrance of the mall, my bootprints left in the dust, the only indication that I, or anyone, had ever been there.
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